Why Robin Thicke Doesn’t (And Maybe Can’t) Understand Consent

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I feel a little silly being interested in something that TMZ is interested in, but I really think there’s a story here. Stick with me.

So Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus recently blew our damn minds by dancing suggestively at MTV’s Video Music Awards; and because bewailing the decline and fall of modern civilization is a hobby of mine, I decided to do a little research. To to my surprise, I discovered a few facts that were actually pretty disturbing/intriguing:

  1. Robin Thicke’s mom still talks about him like he’s 14. She was so proud of his performance at the VMAs, but disgusted with the behavior of that Miley Cyrus tramp. (Like it was Miley’s private plan to dry-hump her son in front of millions of people, and not a carefully-choreographed routine that they’d been practicing, together, for weeks.)
  2. Robin Thicke’s wife is 100% on-board with her husband simulating rear entry on a 20-year-old girl on national television, and furthermore was thrilled to hear he had been cavorting with (and, I guess, blowing smoke on?) three topless models for his sunny pop hit about date rape.
  3. For his part, 36-year-old Thicke says he regrets involving the 20-year-old starlet–not because he’s ashamed of doing something so publicly degrading with a girl young enough to be his adolescent love-child–but because she got all the attention. Which is to say, this is not a clear-eyed, emotionally-robust 36-year-old we’re talking about here.

But so what, right? We’re used to the idea that Hollywood is vacuous and decadent and “not like us”–but for whatever reason, this story made me think. Why are these people so foreign to those of us in Real America? How does a person hit 36 and still think blowing smoke in a woman’s face makes him look cool?

How do people get this way?

I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for him, but Robin Thicke has a few things working against him.

He was born rich and beautiful in Los Angeles, the son of two rich and beautiful soap opera stars. He’s had a multimillion-dollar meal ticket in the entertainment industry since birth, and he’s lived his entire life in a city that values nothing else.

It’s entirely possible that, in his experience, most women really are sexually available. A man in those circumstances may, in fact, start to think of his access to any given woman in the club as a foregone conclusion. People don’t get that entitled unless they’ve had a lot of experience getting what they want.

But while some of these women might go for his roguish personal magnetism (by which I mean they like being called “good girls” and being told what they want), it might also be because he’s loaded, and famous, and a potentially career-making lay for an aspiring actress/singer/dancer.

Does that create “blurred lines” of consent?

Not in the eyes of the law, certainly–men and women are free to have sex for whatever reason they want–even money, as long as there’s a third party filming it.

But while we piously declare that any sexual act between “mutually consenting adults” is nobody else’s business, we also acknowledge that cashing in power for sex carries at least the suspicion of violated consent.

That’s why corrections officers can be charged with rape for “consensual” encounters with prisoners–the massive power differential between an inmate and a guard makes the idea of mutual consent very fuzzy, if it can be said to exist at all.

But in LA, this method of influence-peddling is more or less expected.

Liberace famously used his wealth, prestige, and access to illegal narcotics to persuade a 16-year-old boy to become his personal plaything for five years, eventually giving the kid plastic surgery to make them look more alike. And while that’s probably a little weird even for Hollywood, it wasn’t weird enough for anybody to speak up about it (until the kid sued him for palimony while he was dying of AIDS).

When Roman Polanski drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, Hollywood shrugged and said, “Well, it wasn’t rape rape.” To us, it was shocking–but a society so fueled by power, money, and sex necessitates a very narrow, legalistic view of sexual consent. Polanski’s crime was (in their eyes) something of a technicality; and that’s exactly how they’ve treated it.

When a teen starlet is encouraged to sexualize her public image (or undergo plastic surgery, or lose weight “by any means necessary”)–does she comply out of self-interest, or because she suspects that her connected, wealthy corporate handlers can pull the plug on her career at a moment’s notice? Do Will Smith and Jada Pinkett have an open marriage because that’s just “the way things are” in Hollywood: or is it because he’s way more famous than she is, and can pretty much dictate terms?

For that matter, what about Thicke’s wife? Does she support his player public image because she’s just that cool, or because of the professional fallout that would ensue if she didn’t? I’m not sure how even he would be able to tell.

We’re talking about a guy raised from birth as a member of the nobility in this culture;

a guy who has perhaps never had a sexual encounter that wasn’t freighted with that kind of tension. And if he abuses his position, there’s very little in the way of social (let alone legal) consequences. Until recently, he’s been famous enough to do what he wants, but not famous enough that anyone would care if he got a DUI.

Of course, someone who lives in that kind of ethical quagmire ought to be more circumspect about his sex life, not less. The fact that he chooses piggish obliviousness instead is inexcusable, but it’s also unsurprising.

The same logic applies on a smaller scale to frat boys,

varsity basketball players, teachers, employers, and spouses. These offenses cluster in situations where power, money, class, and intoxicants distort our one-dimensional boundary of sexual propriety–and particularly among the kinds of people who take their moral cues from music videos (i.e. people with lousy parents).

Having enshrined mutual consent as the sole governing principle of sexual ethics, Hollywood has become our canary in the mine–partly because it represents the avant-garde of loosening sexual mores, but also because it is a profoundly unequal society, with more abundant incentives and opportunities for exploitation than perhaps anywhere else on the planet.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that rape culture is a product of latter-day moral decline–it’s older than the wheel–but Robin Thicke (and millions of entitled, poorly-raised men like him) show how the modern “culture of consent” is wholly inadequate to reform it. We teach men that “no means no” (as we should), but we’ve failed to teach them that some things are wrong even if you get a “yes”.

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Why Robin Thicke Doesn’t (And Maybe Can’t) Understand Consent

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